Reviewed for the National Post
Published October 5, 2012
The Western Light is Susan Swan’s most autobiographical book — which presents a dilemma. Assuming Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, each of us must be virtuosos of our own narratives. This in turns supplies us with an honest defense against critics: Only one of us is a genius on this subject. Swan is also patriot of that land where writers “write what you know,” while other novelists wave a less personal banner. This aesthetic divergence tends to be philosophically hard-wired — not unlike the recent divided sentiments over whether we should write negative reviews or “positive” ones. That example provides for a bit of foreshadowing. Because maybe what’s etched in the DNA of this book was lost in decoding, but The Western Light fell short of this reader’s retina, and left me grappling.
A prequel to The Wives of Bath, Swan’s excellent and perhaps finest book, The Western Light features the same female protagonist, Mary “Mouse” Bradford. Here, Mouse is 12 years old, and sheltered from the urbanite academia and power politics in Wives. Still, she is not wholly naive: As the daughter of a doctor, living close to the mental hospital in a small-ish town, she has first-hand experience of death, disability (including her own disfigurement, from polio) and abnormal psychology. Mouse is intrigued by an ex-pro hockey player who has killed his wife, arrives in town as a forensic psychiatric patient, and is an infamous escape artist. Most of the action revolves around the looming hospital and occurs through an unlikely friendship Mouse has with this daydream-bogeyman, John Pilkie.